Our Aid Convoy to the Calais Jungle

Thursday 24th September: The Prep

10 volunteers joined us on Thursday to get the final sorting of donations done, and long after the last people had left, Stephen and I finished the final job of splitting the food we’d received into individual parcels to distribute directly on arrival, as requested by one of one of the organisations working in Calais. All the advice from the groups there had been to arrive prepared – only bring the most urgently needed items, and have them all separated by type and size so that they could be easily distributed in the camp or stored in the warehouse when distribution wasn’t immediately possible. We followed that advice to the letter; our arrival had been booked well in advance, and we’d checked in frequently with the people we were meeting and others on the ground to confirm that we were bringing only the most needed goods.

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It was difficult to keep up – at one point we were told to collect hardwearing men’s jeans and trousers but the day before we set off, we were asked to leave those and some other items behind as enough had been collected. It’s not nice to leave donations behind, but we were able to fill the space in the vehicles with other things that had climbed up the priority list (like tents, food, and boots) and we knew we’d get the jeans out next time they were needed as they were already sorted and bagged, ready to go down with another group when necessary. We Locked up the unit just as the milk vans were arriving to load up for the day, marking the end of 3 weeks of intense work. We were as ready as we could be the drive down.

Friday 25th September: The Send Off

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We’d been really lucky with all the help we’d had locally; the local paper had drummed up support and contacted some key people asking them to help us; the council provided storage space, set up collection points throughout the area, arranged vans to help gather donations locally, and provided us with volunteers; the Bishop set up collection points and the local churches encouraged people to donate goods and money to us; educational institutes collected goods and provided support; and local people gave donations, money and lots of their time to help sort through things. None of what we did would have happened without help from the people of Renfrewshire, so we were happy to welcome the press to see us off on Friday morning to let people know that their hard work was paying off, to thank everyone who had helped, and to get a last call out for fundraising. We’d raised over £2,000 which more than covered our costs, so everything left over could be spent on the most needed goods when we arrived.

We posed for photos while loading up the cars and thanked everyone who’d helped pull everything together – it was really exciting and seeing the goods get into the vehicles was really satisfying. We fit in more than we’d hoped to and all 4 cars set off. One would meet us in Calais the following day, and 2 would follow us to Manchester and empty their cargo into a large trailer that would come with us the rest of the way.

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In Manchester, we loaded the two cars into the trailer (carefully weighing everything as we went!) and found there was enough space in the end to fit the contents of all 3 cars in there instead! This meant we’d only need to take one car with us to pull the trailer, instead of two. This would save us over £200 on fuel & crossing costs so we were really happy about that.

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We all had a good meal, waived goodbye to the cars heading back up to Glasgow, and went to bed. Next stop, Calais!

Saturday 26th September part 1: The Drive

We were up bright and early to set off at 7.30am in old clothes reserved for decorating and garden work, ready to get some work done as soon as we arrived. We reconfirmed our expected arrival time with our contact, and got the address for where to meet them.

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We had thought long and hard about how and when to book the crossings; it’s cheaper to book ahead online, but if you turn up late and miss the pre-booked ferry or Eurotunnel, it can get very expensive indeed! As the drive was going to take over 6 hours (with the weight of the trailer restricting our speed), we knew there was a lot of room to arrive early or late, and we didn’t want to miss a pre-booked crossing and have to pay more out of the donations that were given so kindly, or arrive too early and waste time in Dover that could be spent helping in Calais. So, we spent most of the drive (and most of our monthly data allowance!) looking for the best deals as we got a better idea of the time we were likely to get there. The Eurotunnel told us they were booked up, but we called again as we got closer to find there had been enough cancellations, and few enough tickets sold at the port, that we could cross with them after all at a much cheaper rate that on the ferry.

Both cars took the Chunnel and we met in Calais so that we could arrive at the warehouse to meet the organisation together. We’d heard horror stories of people turning up to The Jungle (the name given to the refugee camps) to distribute, only to be met by the strongest people there who can empty the vans in seconds and sometimes hoard the goods. The process, therefore, is to meet at the warehouse where goods are unpacked & grouped together ready to meet bigger teams of people to get the goods out to The Jungle more fairly, safely and effectively. Items that aren’t needed are kept in the warehouse ready for when they are needed, otherwise donations that may be needed again in a few days can be found left in the mud in the camps.

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Saturday 26th September part 2: The Warehouse

We pulled up at around 5pm as planned, and were asked if we’d consider coming tomorrow instead since we were staying overnight and the warehouse volunteers were hoping to finish for the day by around 6.30pm – we explained that that wasn’t really going to work given that we had a lot less time the following day, but said we’d be very happy to muck in with sorting the items into the messy warehouse, and that a lot of what we had was stuff that needed to go straight to the camp anyway so we were happy to take it there (boxes of shoes already sorted by size, food parcels, etc.).

The person who met us asked us not to go to The Jungle, but instead to empty everything but food at the warehouse after all. The warehouse manager showed us where to put everything and we set about unloading. He told us not to take the food parcels to camp because “they have too much food now, there’s unopened food scattered all over the place because they’ve got too much of it, just leave it here, you shouldn’t really have brought food.” It was disappointing to think the parcels might go to waste, but we were elated to hear that nobody in The Jungle was hungry anymore! We had planned to spend a lot of the money we’d brought with us on food, so asked what kind of thing might be better – he said just to give cash to them. We said we’d rather buy things, but he said no more supplies were needed because the warehouse was well stocked, that there was no point buying food, and that the focus was construction so if we gave the money to him he would give it to the builders. We wanted to know what we were buying so we offered instead to buy the building materials but he again stressed that the best thing to do was just to give the cash to them. We politely declined, hoping to find a different solution.

Another group of volunteers offered to take us to The Jungle so we set about parking one of the cars and the trailer up ready to follow them in, but the warehouse manager asked if he could fill our trailer with unwanted donations instead. We’d already agreed to help them remove the unsuitable goods (EG women’s clothes, summer clothes, high heel shoes, dirty clothes, etc.) tomorrow and said we’d still be happy to do that but that we were off to learn about The Jungle before the police curfew. He insisted we leave the trailer & keys with him to fill up and kept us there for so long that by the time we set off, the police had closed off the roads and we were no wiser about how to help the following day. When we came back, the trailer was full and locked up ready for us to remove. The warehouse manager asked us to take the goods to Cash4Clothes the next day and to send the money back, but stressed that we shouldn’t donate it back to the official organisation, and instead directed us to a Facebook page with a fundraising website. He said the money would pay to rent houses for volunteers so that they didn’t need to be scattered around in hostels. Getting back to the UK in time to catch Cash4Clothes would have left us no time to buy goods the following day, but he again suggested we just give the cash to him or either of two other people instead, and just focus on taking the goods away.

We left for the day feeling pretty down – all our donated goods which were needed by the people living in the camp were now sat in a warehouse (apart from the blankets, which some independent volunteers had taken to The Jungle right away) and we now had no idea where to spend the cash.

We were acutely aware of the time constraints the following day as we had a long drive back and work on Monday, and we knew that little would be open in France the following morning. We asked for advice about what to buy on one of the Facebook groups, and were again contacted by someone from the organisation asking for the cash. Again, we politely declined and he agreed to meet us at the warehouse the following morning at 10am in order to give advice.

We also heard from other volunteers who had had a similar experience to us and were equally disappointed at having everything put straight into the warehouse and at the attitude of the people at the warehouse who were saying completely different things in person than they had been in advance of the trip.

There was nothing else we could do for the day, so we found somewhere to eat and got an early night ready for what we hoped would be a better following day. I couldn’t get out of my head that knowledge that some people were sleeping without tents or sleeping bags tonight while I was in a comfy bed, and that the tents & sleeping bags that had been gifted to them were locked up out of reach.

Sunday 27th September part 1: Problems at the Warehouse

We arrived back at the warehouse after breakfast the next day for around 9am. We weren’t meeting our new contact until 10, but we hoped to find something else useful to do. In order to be ready to go and to free up time later, we decided to open the trailer and get the things in there organised to make some space for the things that would need to come out the car to come home with us later (like our cases). When we opened the trailer, I felt sick. The items we’d been asked to sell included some of the things we’d brought. There were waterproof men’s coats that we’d spent hours sorting through, clean blankets, brand new underwear, hats, & scarves, and plenty of clean duvets which would no doubt have been useful in The Jungle.

We confronted the warehouse manager and other volunteers there who were clearly upset that we were bringing it up in front of new volunteers who were arriving shocked at what they were seeing had happened. They assured us that everything in the trailer were rejected items – we showed them the bags we’d brought that they’d not even opened to check, and we showed them the good quality gloves and other items that they were still asking people to bring but were now sending us away with to sell for them. They then said it was an error, that they’d fix it, and that only the things at the front would have been put in in error but that the rest of the load would be women’s summer clothes, etc.

Other volunteers were loading up from the warehouse to take things to The Jungle as they were unhappy at the rate at which things were getting distributed. We gave the things to them that we’d found in the trailer which were useful, and they later told us the items had been gratefully received in the camp. We directed to them to the other goods in the warehouse that we’d brought, such as shoes, and they confirmed the items were needed in The Jungle and carried on loading up their van with a mix of our donations and other things from the warehouse to ensure that it all got out to people and that no more of our goods would be sent away to sell.

We checked through everything else we could find, and then joined the crowed of volunteers who were getting a very strange lecture from those in charge about not saying anything negative about them on Facebook. They stressed that the warehouse wasn’t full, that we shouldn’t be telling people not to bring things as there was lots of space, and that we needed to be careful on Facebook not to give out the impression that they were hoarding or misusing goods. It was very strange, and we weren’t all convinced that the goods being sold were being done so accidently.

We knew immediately that it wasn’t worth leaving France early to get to Cash4Clothes, so we set about trying to find people with vans who would help us distribute more items in The Jungle. The person who was supposed to meet us at 10 from the organisation had messaged me to say he’d be over an hour late, so we thanked him but said we’d need to get on with things rather than wait for him as we’d wasted enough time that morning re-emptying the trailer.

We rescued all the food parcels we’d been told to leave behind which weren’t needed, and went with other independent volunteers to The Jungle. The police had kept the roads blocked despite it being outwith curfew time, but we followed the other volunteers to a back entrance.

Sunday 27th September part 1: The Jungle

We pulled into a side road that backed onto the edge of The Jungle and found other volunteers emptying vans of donations – some had turned up and flung their doors open, only to be mobbed by people and have things emptied quickly and dangerously. We didn’t want that to happen with the food, so we decided to go in and look around.

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The first thing that hit us was the smell. We’d obviously arrived at the edge of the camp where people go to relieve themselves, but there were also tents around there where people were having to live in the mess all the time, that was very upsetting. The camp is packed full of weather-damaged tents, DIY’d small constructions, and people. Everyone there is living on top of each other, but everyone we passed smiled and waved at us. We said hello to people as we passed and saw people working together to turn wooden pallets and tarpaulins into basic shelters. One man was sat with a bag of broken and bent nails, hammering them into shape with rocks, then passing them to the other men building things. We didn’t see any of the excess food we’d been told about.

We went to see the church which had been constructed in a similar way, albeit on a bigger scale, and the library next door which had just been given a new generator allowing them to run more classes. They were building a classroom attached to it to expand even further, and we also saw a garage which refugee mechanics had set up, hoping to attract custom from cars in Calais. The camp was squalid and heart-breaking, but the people there were making the most of it, and refusing to give up despite the trauma they’d already been through to get that far. One tent had even put some small plants within a wire pen at the front to create a small front garden.

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We met a group of men who told us that we were at the edge the Sudanese area; the camp is divided by nationality with the Eritreans camping to the left of us, and the Afghans behind. Of the men we met, most were Sudanese but one was Eritrean. They spoke in Arabic but some knew a few words of English and one man, Sami, was able to translate. We told them we had food in the car which they were welcome to, and they thanked us but said it would be unfair to take our food without first welcoming us to their home and sharing what they already had.

They rallied ‘round to find us the most comfortable chairs, and we sat with them and asked about where they’d come from and what they were short of. They told us they were hungry and wanted food, and that they were worried about winter and needed tools to build with, and gas to cook on, as they’d struggle to make fires when the wood gets wet. Sami showed us his kitchen – a gap between two tents where he had a small fire and some very basic cooking equipment which somebody was using to make tea for us all. He was proud to have a kitchen where he could cook for all the surrounding people, but said they needed milk, food, and pans. He told us about the war in Sudan and how he’d had to flee 3 weeks previously. He said that heading to Britain made sense for the people there who already spoke bits of English, and how the others were already trying to learn more of the language.

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Once we’d shared their tea and biscuits, Sami and his friends followed us to the car where they collected the food parcels we’d brought, to share between themselves and the people around them. They were very grateful for the food and thanked us for coming to see them. We wished them well and went back to the warehouse, hoping to find more volunteers with a van who could help us take more food and tools to the people there. We did find some people with a van who were about to go and pick some litter – we asked if they’d let us fill the van at the supermarket first, rather than take it empty, and then they could litter pick and we could take supplies to people with the same trip. They were very happy to help, and let the organisation at the warehouse know they would follow behind, but the volunteers there told them not to as the litter-picking was more important and what we were trying to do wasn’t a priority.

We eventually met back up with the other car who’d come with us – their car was big enough to fill up, so we went to the only place open on a Sunday (Carrefour) and filled up as much as we could fit with fresh food and milk, tarpaulins, and tools. We took the full car back to the camp and again headed through to find people to take the goods. We took an electric jigsaw straight to the library where it could be charged with their generator. The people there were very happy to receive it as it would help with construction. We also gave out tarpaulins to the men we’d seen earlier on who were building – other people quickly flocked to us to ask for the plastic sheeting to weather proof their tents. The men building directed us to other people who needed the tarpaulin to protect their tents with.

Sami had gone elsewhere by the time we arrived back, but some of his friends helped get together even more people to come and collect the new things we’d brought – they were most excited at the car by the basic tools and the milk. They were also very pleased to have some fresh food to share out, and they thanked us again and said they would share with all the people they knew who we’d seen them waving and talking to on the walk back.

When other people saw that we had fresh food, they flocked to the car. The men who we were giving the goods to were good at keeping them back and there was no violence, but my heart broke when everything had been given out, and a man came to me and asked for food. He said he was from Syria and he needed more help than the men from Sudan. He said he had had to run from his country’s problems, and that he just wanted food. It broke my heart to have none left for him, and I still can’t get his face out of my mind.

We desperately wanted to stay and do more, but we had already stayed for hours longer than we had planned to and knew we had a long drive ahead. We had also been warned that the army had just arrived and there was potentially going to be some trouble. We’d already seen helicopters above, and already knew that the police had closed off most access to the camps. There was no time to find more people and do another shop, so we left with heavy hearts but feeling that we’d helped a lot more that day than we had the day before.

We set off back to Britain and found the trailer to be too heavy with all the things we’d been given to sell. Cash4Clothes was shut anyway, so we took the goods to some textile recycling bins, and managed to get most of it into Oxfam bins so we hoped the money raised for them would be well spent.

While unloading, we found a whole load more bags of goods that were needed in Calais – more men’s waterproof coats, more new underwear, and more hats. We kept those items to bring home and were again devastated that these items were being given to people to sell for the organisation, rather than being taken to the people in The Jungle for whom they were intended.

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We were (and still are) determined that they get to the people who need them.

Monday 28th September: The Return

We had left on Sunday feeling a little better about how much we had managed to redeem the trip, even if only for some people. We were obviously upset at having brought home a boot full of donations and a pile of unspent money, but we felt we’d done the best we could at every stage.

I hoped we’d wake up feeling refreshed with a new perspective, but I woke up depressed and hopeless about the way forward – how many of our donations and those from others had actually made it to the jungle? How many were on their way to be sold right now? How many more people are being told not to take food to the hungry people there, but to hand over cash or pick up litter instead? The fact that other independent volunteers were collecting & distributing our goods from the warehouse made us feel better, but being back in Britain with no way to help was really frustrating. It was hard to come home to a comfy bed, to wash off the grime of The Jungle, and enjoy a hot meal, knowing that the people we’d met over the weekend, and the thousands of others with them, were unable to.

It’s also frustrating to know we still have donated goods to get to Calais; we have items that are needed which we either couldn’t fit in the cars, received too late, or had to bring back with us having rescued them from the ‘for sale’ pile. We wanted to send these out to the warehouse with other groups after our trip, but we no longer consider that an option.

I don’t know if things with that organisation are dodgy or not – it’s hard to know these things for certain, but the fact remains that they are asking people to sell donations which are still needed, and asking for money to come back through side channels rather than directly to the organisation. They’re desperately trying to keep people from saying bad things about them online, and encouraging people to keep asking others to send donations down, and they’re viciously attacking anybody who questions what’s going on with them on Facebook. They are also telling people not to take food to the camp, and to handover cash instead.

A lot of the volunteers we’ve spoken to who have been to the warehouse are concerned about the legitimacy of the operation there, and worried about where the money is going and where their donations are ending up. Even when the things that leave the warehouse to be sold aren’t good quality items that are needed in The Jungle, they are often items that are desperately needed by other refugees elsewhere, and therefore should they really be getting sold off by the kilo to fund houses for volunteers who would generally be expected to raise funds for their own costs? It doesn’t feel right, but it could be more down to mismanagement, negligence, overwork, and/or naivety rather than bad intentions. It’s hard to know, but the reasons for the problems aren’t my concern – my only concern now is working around them to ensure that items & cash going to Calais definitely end up in the right place, because that place is definitely not their warehouse.

We have a number of ideas about how to spend the rest of the money and handle the rest of the goods; some of the other volunteers we met this weekend are wanting to build more shelters and improve the school in the Sudanese part of the camp. Other groups we’ve spoken to want to revise their plans for going down and follow our method of distribution. Whatever happens, we’re not going to sit on these goods or cash for a moment longer than necessary, but we also aren’t going to allow any of it to end up in the wrong place.

I do feel that we failed to some extent, but I’m very happy we were able to help the people we did. I wish I could go back right now with a van and use the knowledge I’ve gained about how things work over there to do things better. I wish we could go back and buy out all of Carrefour’s tarpaulins again, and find some bottled gas so that Sami and his friends can cook when the weather turns. I wish I could find out what happens to them, and I hope they find their way to somewhere safe with better tea.

I wish I could get the image of the hungry Syrian man out of my head, and I desperately hope that the next group of volunteers were able to help him. I wish none of this was necessary, but for a long as it is I hope we can continue to help in some way.

Thanks to all of you for following our story – I hope you’ve found it interesting, and I hope it helps others planning to embark on similar projects.

What I said about Sex Work at conference

Finally, I was called to speak on a Federal Motion! I’m so pleased that it was on a topic that’s so important to me. Here’s what I had written to say, though I did have to skip the last couple of paragraphs as I spoke for a little too long (oops!)

EDIT: You can now watch the speech as well:

Last year, I attended an event run by the Sex Workers’ Open University where we heard from sex workers from all over the world operating under different legal systems as well as from leading researchers on the topic, specifically covering what’s referred to as the Nordic Model.

The event sparked my interest and I’ve been working since then with sex workers and other Sex Worker Led organisations to come up with the best system possible for Scotland, and to oppose with them the Private Members’ Bill tabled by a Member of the Scottish Parliament recently that looked to impose something similar to the Nordic Model up here. Luckily, we were successful in that endeavour but there’s still a worrying appetite to see the clients of sex workers criminalised here in Scotland and in the UK.

In the time that I’ve been working on this, I’ve heard some very interesting and often shocking things about the harmful effects of criminalising the clients of sex workers and that’s why I’d like to urge you not to remove any lines from this very good motion, particularly not any that would remove the key protections it seeks to offer; namely standing against a model that seeks to criminalise clients.

Studies show very clearly that the demand for sex work does not alter when the laws around it do. That is to say that countries who have decriminalised sex work didn’t see an increase in the amount of people involved in buying or selling sex, and that countries who have criminalised the industry or the clients have not seen a drop in sex work activity.

What we HAVE seen, however, across the board, is that sex work that’s done out in the open (perhaps not literally) is safer for all involved.

And let me be clear, regulated sex work is not helpful. It is not a safe middle ground between criminalisation and decriminalisation, it can be as harmful as criminalisation in many cases and we’ve seen proof of that in parts of Australia where such systems exist. The evidence is that decriminalisation IS THE BEST OPTION and as Liberals, feminists and people who support evidence-based policy, it is the only option for our policy. Changing this motion to blue the lines on that helps nobody.

In Sweden, sex workers with criminalised clients are denied condoms in case those providing them with them are seen to be aiding a crime. They are unable to vet or even asses clients easily as meetings need to happen quickly, and in unsafe places. They don’t feel able to contact the police about sexual violence and the clients are unable to raise a red flag to the authorities if they suspect that sex workers are being mistreated or trafficked.

Sex work is work, and to undermine the choices of those involved in the industry by claiming that we need to rescue them in any way is demeaning, unhelpful, and simply untrue.

The biggest threat to sex workers a lot of the time comes from the harmful laws that are so often sought to be applied to their industry; and it is from those laws that they need to be protected, not from their own life choices or careers.

That is exactly what this motion is seeking to protect them from, and removing crucial protections from it would be doing a grave disservice to those we are seeking to help out.

So please, support this motion and do not remove the lines on which we may be taking a separate vote.

One Member, One Vote: What I wanted to say

Today, Lib Dems at conference debated a motion on One Member, One Vote. Unfortunately, I wasn’t called to speak but I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you anyway, so here is what I’d planned to say with my 3 minutes (please excuse any grammatical errors, this was written for me to say and was never intended to be published):

Here we are, back in the SECC after another busy year: in Scotland we’ve fought, and won, a referendum on top of campaigning for the Euros and multiple by-elections as well. Luckily, though, like most Liberal Democrats, we’re used to having a lot to do and never enough time or people to do it so we’ve gotten quite good at allocating the resources we do have to the places where they’ll be most effective.

Over the last 12 months, I have been one of those shuffled resources, as have many other Scottish, and I’m sure, UK-wide members.

As a Euro candidate in the run up to May, I liaised with, trained and encouraged other local parties to get out and get active in our best areas, and I joined the many other activists who’d left their home turf to campaign in our held seats to lend a hand to our MPs.

As the candidate for the Cowdenbeath by-election, I spent most of my time over in Fife grabbing hold of every possible opportunity to get our messages out through the national media to help ensure that listeners and viewers across Scotland knew that the Lib Dems were (and, indeed, are) cutting taxes, raising pensions, creating jobs and holding the Scottish Government to account on the big issues like childcare and, of course, independence.

Although we did manage to fit in 2 or 3 Focuses and a handful of Knock and Drop rounds locally, we have been told all year, quite sensibly, to focus elsewhere.

Now, these are scenarios we’re all used to. Campaigning in the areas that will benefit from it the most isn’t a novelty for the Lib Dems but, unfortunately, this year it has come back to bite our local party quite hard.

Our membership dropped this year, as you might expect, and as a result we’ve found ourselves with less than 30 members.

Despite all of our hard work over the last 12 months, conference, I’m standing here today without a vote, without a voice, and without the ability to represent the other dedicated, hard-working members of my local party who have been left with no conference reps at all; disenfranchised for going where we were needed.

Going forward, we hope to spend a bit more time in our own area, but with the General Election is just around the corner and we know that we’re needed more in East Dumbartonshire and Argyll & Bute.

We’ve been told again this morning, by Willie Rennie and Ming Campbell, that Scottish members need to go and campaign in our held seats. It is vital that we do that but there’s a huge conflict of interest there for 12 Scotland’s local parties who will continue to be denied representation under the current system until they ignore these calls for help and focus instead on recruitment in their own areas. And we’re just a handful of the 68 local parties throughout the UK who find themselves in the same position.

If we pass this motion today, we can carry on lending support where it’s most needed, rather than worrying about representation which is something we should be able to take for granted in a Democratic Party.

And as we gear up for our own local elections in 2017 and start really upping our local activity and hopefully start calling in some of these favours we’ve earnt, I hope we can go out recruiting equipped to sell the greatest benefit there is of Liberal Democrat membership – internal democracy. I’d like to stand on the doorstep and tell people that joining the Lib Dems will give them a real say in policy, rather than mumbling away to them:

“hey, join our party! If we sign up a few people today you might POSSIBLY be in with a chance of convincing one of us to s let you have a go at being a rep one day so that you can vote on policy…”

No, that’s not good enough.

So, if you do have a vote today, please consider how you’d feel if it was taken from you, and vote to pass this motion. Because I can’t.

My Promise to the Nationalists

I’ve made no secret of my intention to vote No on Thursday but I’ve not been quite as vocal about it amongst friends or on social media as I expect I would be under other circumstances. It seems to me that the debate has become quite difficult for everybody involved and that personal relationships all across Scotland are feeling the strain as each half of the country is battling tirelessly against the other in the last few days we have left before making what could be the biggest decision any of us will make in our lives.

I genuinely do believe that both sides are doing what they believe is best for the country and how can you be upset with anybody for that? You can certainly disagree with their means, but is it rational to be upset with anyone who is doing exactly what you are, albeit having reached a different conclusion? After all, I can and do dislike the policies of other parties without letting it affect the relationships I have with members of those parties – when you wear your colours on your sleeve as much as we do, you have to learn to put aside those differences and focus on friendships independent of politics.

As rational as all of that is though, I can’t help but be deeply saddened at the Yes campaign and I find myself biting my tongue around people with whom I’d normally engage in good-natured debate. It really does feel like this is an issue that lasting friendships rely on us avoiding. In a very real sense, the debate is creating deep divisions throughout the country and causing rifts between people who never expected their political involvement to interfere with their friendships.

So, why is that? For many of us, getting people engaged is a constant struggle. If you’d told me last year that everybody I know would be talking about the referendum today, I’d have been elated! I know people who have never voted before who are now out campaigning for their cause – surely that’s a great thing? Why is it then that things can so quickly turn so nasty when the topic comes up? Although many people are asking this question, I think it’s quite clear that the answer is simply that people on both sides are so genuinely passionate about this issue that we all find it difficult to conduct ourselves appropriately.

From my own experience, as much as I’d like to stick to the academic questions of the economy and the currency in these discussions, it feels like a smoke screen. I feel like I’m desperately clinging to the very rational and reasonable arguments (all of which I genuinely believe in on their own) but what I really want to do is drop all of that, lose all pretence of civility and shout out, “why are you trying to tear my country apart?” Always just beneath the surface of my reasoned arguments are passionate accusations like, “What right have you to make me an expat here in my home?” and, “how could you even consider risking my job, my mortgage and my pension?” I don’t want to have a reasoned discussion about who would set interest rates anymore, I want to stand up, wave my flag and scream “How dare you try to erect borders between my English family and myself!”

On the other side though, I know that I have friends who get angry with me when I’m singing the praises of the Union. I’m sure some of you are reading this right now wanting to ring me up and holler, “Why are you trying to deny me the right to self-determination?” Many of you are no doubt looking around at problems like unemployment, over-crowded classrooms and NHS waiting lists and genuinely believing that independence is the answer. It’s no wonder that we don’t chat that much anymore when you see me as somebody actively trying to block the fix to these things, and I understand that, because I find it hard to chat to you these days as well.

I am desperately hoping that the Union remains intact but if, in the early hours of Friday morning, I do find out that things have gone my way, I’m going to find it very hard to celebrate. I may exhale a sigh of relief and revel in the good news for a few moments, but my thoughts will quickly turn to the large minority of people in my country who are devastated that their months and years of hard work have been fruitless. I will feel for my friends and neighbours who will mourn what they perceive as their missed opportunity to make things better and I will sincerely hope that we can work together to mend the divisions that feel so deep from this side of polling day.

Whatever the result, almost half of the country will be hurting on Friday and we’re all going to have to work together to make the best of whatever it is we’re left with. It’s going to be difficult to move past the last few months, especially for those who find themselves on the losing side, but there will be no sense in dwelling on our differences anymore come this weekend.

So, I want to say now to my nationalist friends; I understand your passion. I understand how much this means to you and I hope you understand what it means to me. I know you’re campaigning for what you believe to be best and I hope you can respect that I’m doing the same. I know you’re going to be hurting on Friday if ‘my side’ wins and I hope you spare a thought for me if things go well for you.

I’m not going to gloat if we win and I’m not going to be bitter if we don’t – I promise now to put this past us and work on making things better again after Thursday, no matter the result, and I hope that that’s something that all of Scotland can agree to do, for all our sakes.

Margaret Thatcher 1925 – 2013

Yesterday the news broke that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had died and the UK was instantly united in conversation and divided in opinion. ‘Divisive’ is already an overused adjective in the debate but I’m not sure that anybody could claim to embody the word quite like Maggie did.


I’m not sure that I have much to add to the discussion as I was born two weeks after she left Downing Street and my opinions of her can’t come from personal experience but from the opinions that she inspired in others.


I can look to the current government though to understand a little better how accurately public opinion can assess what a government does. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that bad news is more likely to be discussed and remembered than good. I don’t think anybody coming to power in 2010 could have been seen in a very positive light as the situation required (and still does require) a lot of difficult decisions to be made. When talking about Maggie, my mum pointed out that “it’s almost like people have forgotten how bad the ‘70s were” and I think that sums up a lot of how I feel about Thatcher. I don’t believe that any Prime Minister in the 1980s could have been remembered positively because the choices then were similar to those that we face now.


That’s not to say that I think she always made the right choices, far from it, but her reputation was doomed from the moment she took the job and it was never likely that her good decisions would dominate the headlines or stand out in hindsight.


She inspired some while inspiring hate in others. Some mourned the loss of a great leader while some partied in the streets last night. To get reactions like that over 20 years after last being in power, and from a lot of people too young to even remember her time in office, confirms at least one thing: she will be remembered.


I don’t intend to list the good and bad things she did but I do think that both sides are wrong. I think the good and bad were a lot more balanced than many are suggesting.


I will say, though, that whatever you thought of her or her politics, she died an elderly widow with a family that she loved and it is never ok to celebrate the death of a human being. RIP.

I am not a token


When I look at a group of people, I don’t break it down into a mental pie chart of the genders, races, ages or disabilities represented within that group. To me, removing barriers for everybody and seeing all people equally is the best thing we could possibly aim for as a society and it is my view that any kind of tokenism directly contradicts that mindset. To try to ‘balance’ any selection of people is to categorise them by the very things that I wish we could all be blind to.

I’m not, however, saying that I’m happy with the status quo. Where under-represented groups exist, I believe that we need to find the root of that problem and deal with it effectively. Quotas and tokenism achieve nothing but to undermine the very people they are trying to help.

Liberal Democrats celebrated this week when a popular fringe panelist announced his intention to refuse to sit on any more all-male panels. A few of us, however, were upset by the wider-implications of stands like this but quickly found ourselves in a minority. It’s easy to dismiss us as being too ideological or as not being committed enough to solve the problem and, through that dismissal, I felt very much excluded from the debate.

We spent a good while on Wednesday night getting our ideas and objections together for a concise blog post which was published over at Liberal Democrat Voice today and I am now really hopeful that party members will understand where we’re coming from a bit more now that we’ve reasoned it all out and, maybe, that some might even agree with what we’re saying.

At the top of this post is an avatar that we made of myself and the two other co-authors (Ewan Hoyle and Eilidh Dickson) for the original blog post. The Campaign for Gender Blindness, however, is not limited to 3 people writing a blog. If you like our view of a world in which nobody is judged by their identifiers and in which all barriers are broken with nobody excluded or included on the basis of anything other than what they can bring to the debate then, please, let’s start a movement.

We are not tokens. We are all worth so much more than that.

Granny Whitehead

Long before I ever had an interest in politics, my great gran used to tell me stories about canvassing for her party and standing as a councillor. The only anecdote I can recall is about a delivery drop when a man chased her down the road after reading a leaflet to announce that he wouldn’t be voting for her but, not to worry, because he wouldn’t be voting for “any of those other buggers either!”

At the time, I never imagined that I’d have similar stories of my own but I often wish she was still about to compare stories (and I wonder what she’d think about me campaigning for the Lib Dems!)

Before she died, she gave me a large envelope full of some of the letters and documents she’d kept over the years and I was looking at them today when I found some of her old campaign literature and correspondence. I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded me sharing them with you now and it’s interesting to compare some of the Tory messaging under Thatcher with the Lib Dem and Tory messaging that we have under the Coalition today.

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This is a photo of the front and back of the leaflet. I think it’s interesting to note the focus on local issues and no mention of the national picture, something that can be seen all over Tory and LD leaflets today!

Grandma wasn’t sucessful in her campaign:

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The letter she got from the MP about her campaign noted, again, the problems in getting the electorate to focus on local rather than national issues. This is something that hasn’t changed much and that Lib Dem councillors have struggled with greatly since 2010.

It is evident from the other letters in the bundle that grandma must have been campaigning with her local party for a while before her candidature. Activists generally get all-member emails these days so letters like those below must have been nice back in the day!

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I also found the candidate list for the local Hyndburn elections in 1986 which gives an idea of the political make up of the area at the time (and even includes a Mr. Holden standing for the Liberal-Alliance in Overton, I do hope he’s another relative!)

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Votes at 16, but just this once?

Tomorrow morning, the papers will announce that the Scottish Government will allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum in 2014. This has caused dismay amongst the most unlikely of people: the pro-votes-at-16 group!

Last Spring, the Scottish Liberal Democrats debated the issue and, as I said to Conference on the day, I am hugely in favour of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for the referendum, whether or not the right is extended to all elections in Scotland. My reasons for this are three-fold:

Firstly, I strongly believe in votes at 16. I don’t want to focus too much on that debate because that could take all day and may over-shadow my point. So, let’s just take it as read that I think the voting age should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. I share this view with many people (particularly fellow Liberal Democrats), yet I feel quite alone in my support of the Scottish Government’s decision with regards this particular vote. It seems odd to me that anybody who supports the rights of 16+ year olds to vote could campaign against the decision, simply to serve their own political agenda (eg. “I will only support this if it will apply to all elections”.)

Secondly, I don’t care what reason the SNP has for allowing this.I do not care that the SNP are hoping that 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote for independence (something that is disputed anyway) because, at the end of the day, the motive is irrelevant if the result is desirable.

Finally, I think that it is imperative that 16 and 17 year olds get a say on this issue. Scotland’s relationship with the UK (and potentially even with all of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world) hangs on the results of this referendum and that will affect the way the country works for a long, long time. It is Scotland’s youth that will grow up with the decision made in 2014 and they should get a say. I don’t want their voice taken from them because of party politics.

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

The truth is that we cannot achieve votes from 16 if we hold out for an ‘all or nothing’ agreement. By supporting their right to vote in 2014, we have an opportunity to extend that right to more elections. For a start, the Scottish Government don’t even have the power to change the voting age for Holyrood, Westminster or European elections. Should we pressure them to change the voting age for council elections? Yes, we should. Let’s do that in time for 2017! As for Scottish, General and European elections; let’s use 2014 as a precedent for those.